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Working with Words: Alyx Gorman

Read Thursday, 10 Dec 2015

Alyx Gorman is an editor, writer and social strategist. She’s written for the Guardian, ELLE, Fairfax and the Mamamia Women’s Network and is now the editor of Time Out Sydney and the fashion editor of the Saturday Paper. Alyx spoke to us about big breaks and Becky Sharp.

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What was the first piece of writing you had published?

When I was six, my dad helped me self-publish a poem about dolphins on the internet. My first long feature as a journalist was about the intersection of technology and fashion for Oyster, where I was working as an assistant. I interviewed Hussein Chalayan and the guys from Cutecircuit. In retrospect, it’s pretty cool because this was 2008, I was 19, and wearables weren’t such a thing yet. I also had no inkling that technology and fashion would become such recurrent themes in my work.

What’s the best part of your job?

As a writer, the best part is that moment when all the pieces of your story have been pulled together, all the quotes are in, and you’ve just figured out what a sensible structure for them will be. That’s when you can just sit down and flow. As an editor, there are a lot of best parts. It doesn’t happen all the time, but chatting with a writer and figuring out exactly how to make a piece better, then watching them execute those ideas, is incredibly rewarding. I also love commissioning stories that I really want to read. I’m selfish like that.

What’s the worst part of your job?

The moment when all the pieces of your story have been pulled together, and you have no idea what you’re going to do with them. So you sit dead-eyed at your computer screen panicking on the inside, then pick a fight on Twitter as a form of procrastination. I also get frustrated dealing with incredibly flaky people. Then I feel a deep sense of shame in realising that I myself have become incredibly flaky. I almost flaked out of writing this, for instance.

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?

I suppose for writers who have books, the book is always going to be their ‘moment’, but since I’m a lifestyle writer who rarely publishes anything longer than a couple of thousand words, there’s not a single instance that I can point to. A modern writing career doesn’t typically involve being tapped on the shoulder and asked to come into the secret room up the back in one glorious moment. It’s made up of dozens of little victories. A well researched, glossy feature here. A regular column there. A story that hits a nerve, gets widely shared and makes people send you emails. It’s hard to really get a sense for it while it’s happening. It’s only later that you look back and think, ‘Oh cool, I did a bunch of stuff that year’.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

The best: Mamamia senior management were very big on making things extremely accessible and hooky. They taught me to put the viscera of the story in the first few pars, then let it trickle through the rest of the piece. Pretty much every story I wrote for them that got widely shared received a paring back of complexity in the intro, and an injection of emotion. I don’t think all writing should be like this. But I think all writers should be able to figure out how to communicate effectively to a very broad audience.

The worst: this isn’t so much about writing, but about living. And it’s not so much ‘advice’ as a terrible idea that’s in the ether, which is that it’s better to be a broke freelancer, slowly crawling towards a Big Thing than a comfortable part-time writer, part-time something else. A lot of people seem to think your writing doesn’t count if it’s not your sole source of income. In a market as volatile as ours, that’s crazy. As long as you don’t put your name on something that will come back to haunt you, I think you should sell out as often as it takes to get your rent paid and a cushion in your savings account.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?

It remains a constant surprise to me that anyone is even remotely interested in me or my work! I once saw myself described as a ‘respected journalist’ on a blog (ok, so I Googled myself, I’m not proud of it) and I LOL’d and LOL’d and LOL’d.

A lot of people think they want to write but react violently to being edited.

If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

Because of my skill-set, and the current job market, I can’t imagine a world where I’m not doing writing of some kind. Sure, I might be writing different things – scripts for a commercial maybe, or detailed email instructions, or lesson plans, but I’d still be writing.  

There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?

I don’t think creative writing can be taught to someone who isn’t deeply interested in learning about how to do it. A lot of people think they want to write but react violently to being edited. If you’re not prepared to be edited, to have someone go through your work and explain where you’ve gone wrong and how to fix it, then you’ll never learn to be a good writer. If, however, you are prepared to have someone point out all your weak spots, and you’re prepared to commit what your editor says to memory and practise it next time you write, then you can absolutely learn how to be a better writer. Creativity comes in part from weeding out cliche and replacing it with original thought, and avoiding cliche is something anyone can learn, as long as they’re prepared to work really, really hard at it.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?

If you’re a young person, then do a combined media and something-else degree. The media component is just so that you can get internships legally and get course credit for them, the rest of what you learn from the media part of your degree probably won’t be that helpful. Do a lot of internships. Try and make yourself indispensable. Make connections. Try to socialise after hours with your colleagues. Make sure the something-else is very concrete and non-media related – science, economics, history, art history, philosophy. Apply everything you learn back to your writing. If you’re not a young person, then I suggest you scan the headlines every morning and start pitching hot-takes to every editor you can find. Make sure your pitch makes sense in the context of the publication, and make it as timely as possible.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

Both. I like physical books, but I’m also impatient so ebooks are a great instant fix.

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why? 

I’d love to sit in the back of a very trendy party with Becky Sharp from William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair and listen to her describe the layout of the social landscape.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

I was raised on a combination of NME back issues and blogs. I started reading things like Gawker when Choire Sicha and Jessica Coen were editing it, and that had a big impact on my understanding of the media, and also what it was and wasn’t possible to say. Those gave me a taste for the pace and tone of the web. As for fiction, something that has really clung with me was The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst. It taught me it’s possible to tie something aesthetically gratifying into something emotionally gutting.

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The Wheeler Centre acknowledges the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation as the traditional owners of the land on which we work. We pay our respects to the people of the Kulin Nation and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders, past and present.